State would take over medical pot growing under bill

A bill introduced Wednesday in Salem would put the state in the marijuana-growing business.

Rep. Ron Maurer, R-Grants Pass, said House Bill 3247 would address problems in the medical-marijuana program and ensure patient safety.

"The system we have currently is in shambles," Maurer said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Salem. He said marijuana grown for medical use has been diverted to illegitimate uses, and some medical-marijuana growers have had their plants stolen. Others may be using cannabis laced with herbicides or toxic chemicals.

The bill would eliminate private growing of medical marijuana and direct the state to establish and operate a marijuana growing site. The state would distribute cannabis to pharmacies, where people who are enrolled in the medical-marijuana program could buy it. A designated primary caregiver also could buy cannabis for someone who could not travel to a pharmacy.

The bill imposes a tax of $98 an ounce on the marijuana to cover the state's costs of production and distribution. Maurer acknowledged that the $98 tax would anger some people who currently grow their own medical marijuana and others who are struggling with limited income.

He said the bill is a "starting point" in a conversation about how to manage medical marijuana, not an attempt to eliminate it. Nearly 21,000 Oregonians are now enrolled in the medical marijuana program approved by voters in 1998 by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.

"The voters have spoken," he said, and approved medical marijuana. "That question is not for debate."

He said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement last week that the federal government would leave it to the states to regulate medical marijuana provided an opening to discuss the issue.

Holder's policy statement "clearly changes people's views on how to handle this," he said. "Everybody has been hands-off (about developing a state policy) because they've been afraid the feds would come down on them."

John Sajo, a medical marijuana advocate, agreed that Holder's announcement marks a "game-changing event" in federal drug policy, but he said Maurer's proposal is unworkable because of the way it's drafted.

Sajo said the bill allows pharmacists to opt out of dispensing marijuana, and few will want to dispense medical marijuana, which is still a crime under federal law.

Sajo is executive director of Voter Power, an organization that lobbies for "reasonable, fair and effective cannabis laws and policies." Voter Power volunteers helped pass Oregon's medical marijuana law in 1998. Voters rejected their 2004 proposal to create distribution centers for medical marijuana.

Sajo said many people who want to grow their own medical marijuana would not be deterred by the measure, which would recriminalize all private marijuana growing. He also questioned whether a state-run growing site that would effectively be a monopoly would produce the quality of medical marijuana that people have come to expect.

"If government producing medicine is a good idea, why don't we get our aspirin that way?" he said.

Voter Power is proposing its own dispensary system in SB 812, which would allow licensed and regulated producers and nonprofit dispensaries to supply medical marijuana to patients.

Neither SB 812 nor HB 3247 have been assigned to a legislative committee.

Maurer noted the proposal has support in both parties. Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, joined Maurer and two other Republicans, Chris Harker of Beaverton and Jim Thompson of Dallas, in introducing the bill.

"We're going to build a reasonable coalition," Maurer said, "and come up with a viable alternative."

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